CLEVELAND — When asked Thursday about what makes the Golden State Warriors a great defensive team, LeBron James was quick to answer.
“Draymond,” James said, praising 2016-17 Defensive Player of the Year, Draymond Green. “Draymond is a catalyst and the anchor for their defense. Very, very smart defensively. He knows pretty much every set. He kind of flies around and dictates their defense, either on the perimeter or protecting the rim as well.”
Here’s the thing: LeBron James could be as good a defender as Draymond Green. Even better. James certainly has the basketball I.Q.
“He’s probably one of the smartest guys to ever play the game,” Green said about James not long after the compliments went in the other direction.
And James, of course, is both bigger and quicker than Green. He can “fly around” on the perimeter and protect the rim as well as any non-center in this league.
Two years ago, the U.S. National Team allowed 117 points per 100 possessions over their last three pool play games at the 2016 Olympics. The Americans were undefeated, but their defense had been porous, to say the least. And as they were prepping for the elimination rounds, one staffer noted that it was on defense “where we really miss LeBron.”
James had played in each of the last three Olympics, but skipped 2016. Before the U.S. figured things out defensively in the elimination rounds in ’16, the staffer pointed out that James’ defensive instincts and athleticism erased a lot of his teammates mistakes on that end of the floor.
The Cleveland Cavaliers made a lot of defensive mistakes this season. They ranked 29th out of 30 teams in defensive efficiency, and that shouldn’t be a surprise to those who watched them throughout the season. The defensive breakdowns were commonplace from night to night.
The Cavs ranked in the bottom six in both opponent field goal percentage in the paint and opponent effective field goal percentage from outside the paint. They ranked 26th in regard to both forcing turnovers and forcing the least efficient shots on the floor (those between the restricted area and 3-point range).
The load that I have to carry offensively, it’s been what the season has asked for.”
In James’ four seasons in Miami, the Heat ranked no worse than 11th defensively. In the four seasons prior to that, the Cavs (under head coach Mike Brown) ranked no worse than 11th as well. Since his return to Cleveland, the Cavs have ranked 20th, 10th, 22nd and 29th defensively. The year they ranked 10th is the year they won the championship. And the 2017-18 Cavs, having allowed 3.4 more points per 100 possessions than the league average, were, by far, the worst defensive team that James has been on in his 15 seasons in the league.
James certainly wasn’t an innocent bystander in regard to the Cavs’ defensive issues. He was at the center of many of their breakdowns and was often the last guy back in transition.
In Game 3 of The Finals, James was probably too eager to pass the Kevin Durant defensive assignment off to a teammate. A huge performance from Durant in a back-and-fourth game was calling for the Cavs’ best defender to take on the challenge of slowing him down. But on a couple of possessions late in the fourth quarter, Andre Iguodala didn’t have to set much of a screen to get James switched off of Durant, who, because James wasn’t fighting through the softest of screens, got his choice of defender on every possession.
James played 82 regular-season games for the first time in his career. Including postseason, he played 650 more minutes than any other player this season. Since he was drafted in 2003, he’s played more than 10,000 more minutes than anybody else.
There is only so much gas in the tank and most of this season’s gas was spent carrying an offense that clearly missed Kyrie Irving in the most critical moments. With more defenses that switch every screen, players who can create in one-on-one situations are more valuable.
With Irving in Boston and with Isaiah Thomas ineffective in his five months with the Cavs, James has been the only one on his team with the ability to punish opposing defenses off the dribble. In The Finals, the Warriors didn’t help off James’ teammates until he got into the paint, making it imperative for him do get there as often as possible, both for his own scoring opportunities and for his teammates to get open shots.
That takes a ton of energy. And not enough was left for continuous effort on defense, in the regular season or in the playoffs. But, between Games 3 and 4, James wouldn’t admit that the load he’s had to carry on one end of the floor affected his effort on the other end.
“The load that I have to carry offensively, it’s been what the season has asked for,” he said. “Obviously, we haven’t had many playmakers throughout the course of the season. We had some early on, and we made the trades and things of that nature. But it’s been what the season has called for, and I’ve taken that responsibility to be able to have to make plays for myself and make plays for my teammates as well.
“Defensively, we’ve surrounded ourselves with some more wing defenders this year that allowed me to not have to exert so much energy defensively. But whenever the number has been called for me to defend, I’ve been always taking that responsibility. So I don’t think that’s changed.”
James was probably too generous in regard to the capabilities of the Cavs’ other perimeter defenders. In his 28th game against the Warriors over the last four years, J.R. Smith was still getting confused on off-ball switches, leaving Stephen Curry’s screener free for layups far too often.
In regard to per-game point differential, the Cavs were the worst team to reach The Finals in the last 27 years. Over 104 games (regular season and playoffs), they outscored their opponents by a total of just 39 points. The Warriors finished a plus-700.
Despite the departure of Irving, the Cavs’ offense remained in the top five this season. And it had its moments in the playoffs, torching the Toronto Raptors (a top-five defensive team) in the conference semis.
But the defense was mostly terrible, worse than that of the Sacramento Kings in the regular season. And the bad habits that built up over 82 games were on full display as the Warriors picked it apart in The Finals, scoring 120 points per 100 possessions over the four games.
That the Cavs became the first team since the league started counting turnovers 41 years ago to rank in the bottom three in defensive efficiency and win a playoff series is a tribute to James’ brilliance on offense. That they reached The Finals a fourth straight year makes it clear that he’s still the best player in the world at 33 years old.
But we can’t call him the league’s best defender or anything close to it … until he plays for a team that allows him be.
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